Foreign Policy Blogs

America’s Diplomats: Film Review by Gary Sands

filmreview6“America’s Diplomats”, the Foreign Policy Association latest production is a must-see documentary for anyone interested in the history of American diplomacy or considering a career in the Foreign Service. Indeed, it chronicles the evolution of American diplomacy over the decades, the motivation behind America’s Foreign Service Officers, and both the successes and failures of U.S. foreign policy.

The documentary is narrated by the rich, gravelly voice of the actress Kathleen Turner, an American film and stage actress and director (whose father was a consular officer, her mother serving alongside him), and draws on extensive interviews from such notable past and present diplomats as current Secretary of State John Kerry, the former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, former Secretary of State James Baker, and former ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell.

As we learn, the history of American diplomacy stretches as far back as the founding of the nation, when Benjamin Franklin became recognized as “America’s first diplomat”, and carried on over the years as diplomacy secured peace after World War II and met the challenge of Communism.

Yet these successes are quickly put aside at the beginning of the narrative to reveal the grave dangers faced by American diplomats today. Featured in full details are the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the 1998 bombings at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of the ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy staffers.

The 1979 Iran hostage crisis also figures prominently, and helps belie any criticism that this is merely a rose-colored recruiting video. The harsh reality viewers will take from the film is that the Foreign Service is not for the faint-hearted. Those afraid of succumbing to diseases like yellow fever and cholera, being shot at by snipers, bombed, or held hostage while overseas need not apply.

Indeed, the documentary not only covers the physical threats but the intellectual challenges in diplomacy —for example the primary challenge of trying to convince a foreign population that you are not occupiers seeking to overturn their government, but rather a helpful presence intended to bring positive American values to the citizenry.

Oftentimes, the population is not convinced, and tragedy sets in, as portrayed during the aforementioned Iran hostage crisis, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage by a mob, who claimed that the embassy was a “den of espionage….plotting against the Iranian people.” The hostages were released only after a long captivity of 444 days.  Other times diplomacy succeeds, as shown in the film’s portrayal of the extensive efforts of Richard Holbrooke in bringing an end to Bosnia’s bloody civil war.

The documentary also covers the history of the foreign service, and the influence of the Rogers Act of 1924, which instituted series of competitive entrance exams bringing meritocracy to the corps.

Unfortunately, as the film dutifully points out, the influence of money, privilege and political influence “depreciates the process”, particularly with the appointment of prominent political donors to ambassadorships in some of the better postings like London and Paris. Roughly 30% of ambassadors since the Kennedy administration have been political appointees and not career foreign service officers, which can undermine morale.

Foreign Service Officers have also increasingly played an important role in the support of American commerce, largely since the Reagan years. The film features diplomats supporting such U.S. companies as McDonald’s and Starbucks, although it fails to mention that, in some countries, both U.S. companies have become negative symbols of American influence, despite their products being hungrily consumed by the local population

The role of the consular officers in approving visa requests for those wishing to come to the U.S. is also featured prominently, and raises important questions as to how this “nation of immigrants” should treat those refugees currently fleeing Syria and Iraq.

The film includes an interesting portrayal of such diplomats as Fiorello La Guardia, a consular officer who eventually became the mayor or New York. La Guardia was instrumental in getting shipping lines to implement health checks on immigrant families before they got on a boat, to help ensure families stay together.

Hiram Bingham, another consular officer in Marseilles, France, helped 2,500 Jews in ten months reach the U.S. during the Hitler years, defying orders from Washington and eventually costing him his career in the foreign service.

America’s role in public diplomacy has also grown since the 1960s, and is sometimes referred to as the “soft power” of American principles and values. One such highlighted example documents the role of Ed Perkins, U.S. ambassador to apartheid South Africa, and the challenges he faced as a black American in attempting to promote American values in a hostile environment.

What motivates an Ed Perkins or anyone to serve in the foreign service?  Certainly not the pay, which is far below what many of these highly talented Americans can earn in the private sector. Indeed they are driven by other motivations.  John Kerry believes “it’s done because people love the concept of serving their country, and they love the idea of taking American ideals abroad.”

Which raises the question, why does America get involved in the convoluted conflicts of foreign nations, far from home?  Why is the United States “the undisputed leader on the world stage”?

A foreign policy of isolationism has long been debated in American foreign policy—despite the American Revolution having almost been lost without diplomacy and despite the fact that “the United States would not have existed, without the French support.” In the early years of the nation, Americans really didn’t like the “European ideas” of diplomacy and having ambassadors in foreign countries.

Yet today, following the failures of the war in Vietnam, and limited success in Iraq and Afghanistan, debates over isolationism and America’s leading role in diplomacy are again back in the spotlight, especially among this year’s presidential candidates.

Some diplomats argue for intervention only when we have “a dog in this fight,” or when American interests are threatened at home. As the documentary illuminates, these are difficult decisions to make, with constantly changing parameters, often resulting in devastating consequences, including the death of diplomats.  

If there is one shortcoming of “America’s Diplomats,” it is the failure to examine the question of when and under what conditions America should go to war, and to address the argument in favor of isolationism.  Instead, the film takes it for granted that American involvement is necessary, and has been necessary, given that other nations “look to the United States for leadership.”

Where the documentary shines is in its history of American diplomacy and its well-deserved tribute to those courageous American heroes who are on the front lines of American diplomacy everyday, including the 12 whom Bill Clinton posthumously honored after the 1998 bombing by Al-Qaeda in Nairobi, Kenya, “Far from home, they endure hardships, often at great risk”.

To get more information, please visit the America’s Diplomats website.




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666